Released just two years after the classic slasher Halloween, John Carpenter's The Fog never received the kind of respect and devotion tied to Michael Myers' first outing. If we consult the annals of horror cinema, you'll see The Fog was more of a commercial than critical success, but it's important to remember the cult of Halloween only formed in the years after its release. Carpenter has said The Fog is flawed due to budget constraints and studio pressures, and actress Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't count it among her favorite films. But in the thirty-three years since its release, The Fog has earned its own troupe of devoted fans who recognize how much Carpenter got right. The Fog is a good movie but it's an excellent ghost story. The tale of bloodthirsty mariner ghosts seeking revenge in a California fishing village could have floundered in the hands of a lesser director, but Carpenter, along with longtime writing partner and producer Debra Hill, crafts a moody campfire horror tale. With a cast led by the charming Adrienne Barbeau and Carpenter staples Curtis, Tom Atkins and Nancy Loomis, The Fog is everything its insipid 2005 remake is not: frightening, atmospheric and memorable.
Antonio Bay, Calif., is primed to celebrate its centennial, a dark anniversary for the wandering souls of the sailors who died when the Elizabeth Dane crashed on the rocks outside town in 1880. A mysterious fog rolls over the town, against the wind, and in that fog lurks something evil. During the witching hour - 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. - sword-bearing ghosts ride this fog looking to kill, and the town is awakened by a number of other disturbances, including breaking glass and rogue gas pumps. Caught in the fog are nighttime radio DJ Stevie Wayne (Barbeau); townie Nick Castle (Atkins), who picks up a hitchhiker, Elizabeth Solley (Curtis); and weatherman Dan O'Bannon (Charles Cyphers). While the majority of the townsfolk attend the centennial ceremony, where organizer Kathy Williams (Janet Leigh) and her assistant Sandy Fadel (Loomis) unveil a new statue, Wayne watches in horror from her lighthouse radio station perch as the fog again rolls toward Antonio Bay.
It isn't really fair to compare The Fog and Halloween, but I will do it once more. Halloween was a game-changer for horror cinema and rightly regarded as one of the scariest movies ever made. The Fog is a lesser film but no less entertaining. While Halloween's closest competition was Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, nearly two decades its senior, there were plenty of ghost stories released in the years before The Fog, including The House on Haunted Hill, The Innocents, and, during the previous year, The Amityville Horror. Before The Fog and in the thirty-three years since, there have been many a dumb ghost story, and that The Fog is one of the few truly good haunting thrillers is its biggest accomplishment. Carpenter, again relying on the faceless terror he perfected in Halloween, makes his spectral adversaries frightening in their reasonless bloodlust and unwavering resolve. Never does Carpenter take the subject matter too seriously, but The Fog retains its chilly tone throughout.
Carpenter has commented in interviews that he is unhappy with portions of the film. The director cites dodgy effects and quickly shot sequences with continuity errors as examples of the film's flaws. After seeing early footage, the studio implored Carpenter to ramp up the gore and atmosphere, which he did to varying degrees of success. Hill and the production's second unit shot the early sequence in Antonio Bay when the gas station comes alive, as well scenes in a grocery store and on deserted town streets. These do contribute much to the film's atmosphere, and recall Carpenter's unnerving establishing shots in Haddonfield for Halloween. Some of the gore was added in post-production with the help of visual effects and sound cues, but The Fog isn't exactly a bloody film, which irritated some early audiences. Critics also noted there is not much "terror" in the film, as the fog is only in town for portions of the story. I disagree, as The Fog has plenty of jolts, and the character drama is more than enough to carry the daytime scenes. I can better understand the concerns of critics like Roger Ebert, who questioned whether or not an audience could root against an amorphous villain. While the film does reveal why the fog and its passengers have returned to Antonio Bay, the reason is more legend than immediate grievance. But such is the danger of having inhuman antagonists.
Placing Barbeau alone in a lighthouse detached from the town proper was a great piece of writing by Carpenter and Hill, as it allows her to be both vulnerable and a beacon of reprieve from the impending terror. The actress does a great job in the role, from her early scenes as a sultry DJ to those as a single mother intensely worried about her young son (Ty Mitchell). Atkins, who would later barely survive the underrated Halloween III: Season of the Witch, is a gruffly personable co-lead, and he moves the story forward in the trenches during his wanderings with Curtis. The Halloween scream queen returns as a character akin to the actual Curtis of 1980. One can't help but assume her character's monologue about satisfying her wanderlust may have applied to the actress, too. That Curtis' own mother - Janet Leigh - appears in The Fog is a prime example of why the actress may have felt trapped in her craft. Watching The Fog in 2013 reveals how much better Carpenter's film is than many other thrillers of the era. In the place of terrible acting and gratuitous sex are believable drama and earned scares. Sure, The Fog may not resonate as deeply as more memorable horror films, but it is certainly a minor classic.
Carpenter and Hill were certainly the "Dream Team" of horror, and the former couple continued to work together until Hill's death from cancer in 2005. I have written before that Halloween is my favorite film. I love John Carpenter and I truly miss Debra Hill. I hope Carpenter can again make a film that lives up to his early work, but having The Fog on Blu-ray satiates this desire somewhat. Carpenter's lens and trademark eye for staging make The Fog a much more accomplished film than its budget and troubled shoot suggest. Carpenter's trademark electronic score and future Halloween III director Tommy Lee Wallace's production design and editing only add to The Fog's success. Each supporting character serves a purpose, from sassy assistant Sandy to Hal Holbrook's alcoholic priest, an important piece of the film's backstory and church-set climax. The Fog may never reach the audience of Carpenter's Halloween but it's both a worthy follow-up and excellent ghost story.
Shout! Factory again hits a home run with its excellent high-definition transfer for The Fog. The 2.35:1/1080/AVC-encoded image is undoubtedly the best the film has looked since its release in 1980, and fans should be very pleased. Most importantly, Shout! has again avoided using noise reduction and edge enhancement to "modernize" the look of this gritty '80s film. Remembering the film's low budget and 35 mm film stock, The Fog looks excellent. Detail receives a heavy bump in high definition, and close-ups reveal minute facial features and expressions previously unseen on DVD releases. Carpenter uses a softer focus in The Fog, but wide shots are still fairly deep and always clear. Colors are bold - check out Wayne's orange Volkswagen Thing and the beautiful white caps in the bay - and nicely saturated. Black levels are good; there's a bit of crush due to the way The Fog was filmed, but shadow detail is largely in tact. Composite effects create a few anomalies that, again, are no fault of the transfer, and I noticed no issues with telecine wobble or aliasing. The print used is largely free of defects and the image retains a light layer of natural grain. The Fog winds up looking very impressive in high definition.
Originally released in theaters with only a mono mix, The Fog is given both 5.1 and 2.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks on Blu-ray. Both are impressive, with the surround mix taking a slight edge due to its increased depth and immersive effects. Dialogue is consistently clear and free of distracting hiss and distortion. Carpenter's recognizable score sounds wonderful, and the mix complements the electronic treble wail with some subwoofer and surround support. Ambient effects like crashing waves and crowd noise do waft into the surround speakers, and action effects like breaking glass and slicing swords make good use of the rear speakers. Range and clarity are also both excellent. The Fog is a more front-loaded mix than modern horror films, which is to be expected, but the Blu-ray sounds fantastic. English subtitles are available.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
Shout! Factory releases The Fog in a new "Collector's Edition." The single-disc release is packed in a standard Blu-ray case with newly commissioned key artwork. The reverse of the two-sided cover features the film's classic poster artwork. A slipcover with the new artwork wraps the case. Shout! has included a mix of old extras alongside some great new additions:
DVD Talk Collector Series. Shout! Factory continues to release amazing Blu-rays for classic horror films under its Scream Factory imprint. The Fog may not have the reputation of John Carpenter's seminal Halloween but it's a damn fine film and an especially accomplished ghost story. This new Blu-ray features a wonderful transfer and soundtrack for the film, as well as a host of revealing extras that film geeks will eat up. The Fog earns my highest recommendation!